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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Backstage Confessions of a Temple Sweeper

Semele's Temple Sweeper, Eveline Chang.
Photo: Eveline Chang
By Eveline Chang

If you asked me a couple of weeks ago if I ever thought I’d have the chance to perform on the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House stage with world-renowned artists, I would have said you were cruel for teasing me. So when the call came up for an extra, or supernumerary, for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Semele (closing tonight!), I did a double-take. As a program manager for BAM Education, I spend much of my time in the studio, backstage, or front of house. This new role—Temple Sweeper—needless to say, uncovered a completely different side of BAM for me.

During rehearsals with the COC, I learned the mysterious story of the woman I was portraying: the real-life keeper of the 17-ton, Ming Dynasty temple from rural China. Ruan Jinmei is featured in Director Zhang Huan’s documentary film and ash painting that bookend the opera, bringing a contemporary Eastern dimension to the mythology of Handel’s Semele.

Being a first-time extra in an opera means two things: 1) you realize it takes a small army to realize productions of this scale and 2) you have a lot of free time backstage to learn all about it. In the wings are New York City’s and Toronto’s finest stage managers and stagehands that change the scenes in a matter of seconds. The COC runs command central out of the green room, where the principals zoom by making their entrances and exits with personal wardrobe assistants keeping pace. Upstairs are a maze of dressing rooms, wardrobe, and makeup. Many of these talented behind-the-scenes folks have worked on major TV shows, fashion shoots, ballet companies, and other operas.

Performers prepare backstage. Photo: Eveline Chang
And of course, there’s the performers themselves. Besides the talented singers of the COC, I’ve gotten to hang out with the traditional Tibetan vocalist, the sumo wrestlers, and my dressing roommate, Shelley, who plays Pasithea and the less-obscene part of the infamous donkey.

ABOVE: Semele costumes. Photo: Claire Frisbie
BELOW: (L) Eveline Chang & Byamba Ulambayar. Photo: Eveline Chang;
(R) BAM Backstage pass. Photo: Eveline Chang

So how did my BAM debut go? On my very first step onto stage opening night, my shoe came off (we had to wait about an hour for the first act to end to retrieve it). Soon after that flub, my broomstick fell over during a serious, ceremonial gesture. The initial embarrassment soon became a fun story to share, to which all performers can relate. Being a part of Semele has been truly memorable, and you can call on me to be a Temple Sweeper anytime.

Semele's Super Sweeper. Photo: Eveline Chang
Eveline Chang is a program manager for BAM Education.

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